February 17, 2020, marks the 90th anniversary of the fall of the Paragould meteorite, an ordinary (LL5) chondrite that landed in Arkansas during the early morning hours of February 17, 1930.
The fall was observed by several witnesses hundreds of miles from the meteorite's eventual landing site in Paragould, Arkansas. These included the engineer of a Santa Fe passenger train who was so convinced he had witnessed an aircraft fire that he wired back to suggest a search once he reached Topeka, Kansas, and a garage night man in East St. Louis, Illinois, whose proximity to the Park Airfield also led him to believe the bollide to be an aircraft in distress.
Closer to Paragould, the detonation associated with the meteorite entering Earth's atmosphere caused livestock to stampede and startled residents. One account described "an explosion which jarred things like an earthquake" after seeing the fireball, noting that "the first blast seemed to come from about where the meteor had disappeared, and following this a roar, as though a train were passing, rolled back along the path of the meteor", with "rumbling being audible for perhaps half a minute".
The first Paragould stone, which weighed approximately 80 lb, was discovered later the same morning by a farmer near the town of Finch, as he went to collect his horses from the field. He contacted Dr. Harvey H. Nininger, an instructor at MacPherson College in Kansas, who made plans to drive to Paragould. The farmer then loaned the meteorite to the local high school for exhibit, and was dismayed to learn, soon after, that the school's science teacher had sold the stone to a collector from Michigan.
When Nininger arrived in Paragould only to find the meteorite sold and gone, he made the best of things by investigating the crater formed by the first stone (the farmer had preserved it, thinking it might be important) and the site of two other small stones' impact, and interviewing witnesses. Based on accounts, he surmised that there must be another, larger stone and plotted the meteorite's course on a map. Sure enough, an 800 lb meteorite was found shortly thereafter, resting in a hole 8 feet deep, directly on the line Nininger had drawn on the map.
While Nininger was eventually able to purchase this large piece of Paragould, the finder had solicited bids from others, including a large institution. As Nininger describes in "Find a Falling Star", this drove the cost of the meteorite high enough that he would need to sell it, himself, in order to recoup his investment:
"The Paragould meteorite had profound effects on our lives. I have never ceased to regret parting with it, but I had paid a price too high, and was forced to give up either the specimen or my dream of making meteorites a new vocation."
WIth the proceeds from the sale of the Paragould meteorite, Nininger was able to resign his teaching post and devote his time entirely to the science of meteorites.
At the time of its fall, Paragould was the largest ever meteorite recovered from a witnessed fall in the US, with a total recovered mass of 408 kg
Chant, C.A. (1932) Notes and Queries (Audibility of the Aurora – The Paragould Meteorite – The Leonid Meteors in 1931 – The Nationality of Copernicus – Professor de Sitter's Lectures). Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada 26: 36-40.
Nininger, H.H. Find a Falling Star. New York, P.S. Eriksson Inc, 1972.